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Historical Christianity as a Liberating Force in China

Attempts by the Chinese government to arrest the spread of Christianity have faltered since Christians are remaining steadfast in their faith. Over one hundred million Chinese are estimated to be Christians, and projections suggest that by 2030, China could have as many as 247 million Christians. However, instead of affirming the rise of Christianity, the Chinese government has ramped up efforts to clamp down on Christian missions.

In China, the Church is treated like another arm of the state that must be monitored to ensure conformity with the doctrines of the Communist Party. The “Administrative measures for religious groups” which was instituted in 2020 compels religious institutions to report activities to the Communist Party and propagate its political message. Officials rightfully perceive Christianity as a source of antiauthoritarianism and if left unchecked the growth of Christianity will pose a serious threat to the legitimacy of the Chinese state.

With its emphasis on individual salvation and equality, Christianity offers a liberal alternative to the rigid strictures of the Communist government. Christian churches have been instrumental in establishing civil society organizations that defend the rights of citizens from government abuse. Politically, Christianity in China has spurred change by acting as an agent of reform even during the turmoil of the Qing dynasty, as G. Tiedemann explains: “To a significant extent it was Protestant missionary involvement that provided the inspiration for the partial transformation of the Manchu Qing Empire into the Chinese state.”

Intellectuals inspired by Christianity introduced notions such as individualism, democracy, and international law to a curious Chinese population. Since Christianity has been a potent source of vitality in China for over a century, tolerating this instrument of subversion is politically untenable for many in the Communist Party. However, clamping down on Christianity could prove to be detrimental in the long term, because as we shall see Christianity has played a pivotal role in China’s socioeconomic development.

China is still benefitting from the seeds that were planted by missionaries in the nineteenth century. Historically, strong governments have presided over China, yet missionaries despite criticisms succeeded in establishing independent institutions that were free from the clutches of state intervention. Catholic and Protestant missionaries were devoted to evangelism, but their mission in China was broader than converting locals to Christianity.

Missionaries also spearheaded a modernization project in China through the avenue of education. Children were exposed to a modern curriculum in missionary schools and educated about the importance of governance and human rights. Moreover, the egalitarian approach of missionaries resulted in mass exposure to schooling thus uplifting women and the poor. Interestingly, the influence of missionaries motivated the Chinese government to fund higher education in the late 1890s, long after Protestants had built the Anglo-Chinese College.

Confirming Christianity’s positive effects on China’s development from 1920–2000, researchers from Peking University identify a positive association between the intensity of Christian activities and socioeconomic outcomes such as human capital formation and openness to foreign direct investment (FDI). As education reformers, Christian missionaries lobbied the Chinese government to offer relevant science courses and retire the archaic Confucian system to modernize education. Because of these efforts, China recorded exponential growth in education and by 1918, over thirteen thousand Christian schools were in operation thereby accounting for one-sixth of total schools in China.

Particularly, nursing education received a major boost due to the pioneering activities of Christian missionaries. By the late 1930s, the nursing profession had a membership of six thousand and trained prospective candidates in schools across the country. Missionary activity in China was holistic and afforded ordinary citizens access to superior nutrition and healthcare. Missionaries had successfully created over three hundred hospitals offering more than twenty thousand beds by 1937, and many of these facilities were in rural areas, where they catered to the poor for free.

By improving the quality of education accessible to locals and investing in social infrastructure, missionaries nurtured an urban middle class in nineteenth-century China. A study by Ying Bai and James Kai-sing Kung of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology shows a link between missionary activity and urbanization. Using 1840–1920, as the baseline, they argue that by building learning institutions and hospitals, missionaries expanded the stock of useful knowledge necessary for sustaining economic growth. Crucially, they also report that for this period, Protestantism influenced the emergence of sophisticated industrial firms in China.

Furthermore, according to a 2015 study in the China Economic Review, among the various religions, Christianity had the most considerable effect on growth during 2001–11. Fascinatingly, no consistent conclusions could be drawn for other religions. The researchers contend that Christianity enables economic growth by promoting ethical business customs and prioritizing accountability to fellow humans and God.

On the other hand, the authors theorize that the link between Christianity and FDI is positive because historically Christian missionaries helped to narrow the gap between Chinese locals and the outside world, therefore resulting in greater openness to foreign ideas and businesses. Essentially, the relationship missionaries cultivated between locals and foreigners has a persistent effect on China’s ability to attract foreign investments.

Additionally, studies argue that Protestant entrepreneurs are heralding a new moral revolution in China by leveraging Christian principles to operate ethically sound businesses. Indeed, the higher ethical standards imposed on Chinese businesses due to Christianity will help China to attract FDI.

Invariably, Christianity is competing with the Chinese state and delivering for citizens, so obviously, its growing popularity worries government officials. However, based on the data presented, it is evident that Christianity is a liberating force in China, and it would be apt for the Chinese state to step aside and allow Christianity to help citizens thrive.

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